Giuseppe Verdi's Egyptian opera


Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote 26 operas during his long career. Of these, about 16 are performed today, more or less regularly (Aida, La Traviata, Rigoletto, for example, more, Luisa Miller and Ernani, for example, less). By comparison, Wagner wrote 13 operas, 10 of which appear, from time to time, in modern opera houses. Rossini wrote 39 operas of which only The Barber of Seville is frequently staged. Three or four others, including the lovely La Cenerentola or Cinderella (produced by Opera Roanoke in 1999) are heard only sporadically. Amazingly, Alessandro Scarlatti, 1659-1725, wrote 115 operas, primarily for Naples. However none of these is ever heard today. Many of Scarlatti's contemporaries were similarly prolific since in those days operas were not intended to survive beyond the specific place and time for which they were written, rather like today's TV shows.*

All this is by way of asserting that Verdi is the most productive opera composer who ever lived, his only close competition coming from Wagner and Puccini (seven operas in the standard repertory, or nine if the three Il Trittico operas are counted separately). Of Verdi's 16 operas referred to above, Aida (1871) was his third from last. He thought he had retired from writing operas after Aida, for, among other reasons, he had realized a princely sum in royalties, not to mention the substantial fee he received for Aida's original performance in Cairo. So Verdi had ample means to retire and live the life of a country squire. Aida, by the way, is one of the three most popular operas ever written (along with Carmen and La Boheme.)

The two operas Verdi wrote after Aida, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), were coaxed out of him primarily by Arrigo Boito, an opera composer in his own right (Mefistofele) who wrote the libretti. (Falstaff appeared when Verdi was 80 years old!) Many consider these two Shakesperean operas. along with Aida, to be Verdi's finest works. These three, known collectively as Verdi's "late" operas were significantly evolved from Verdi's earlier, popular triumvirate of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, all of which first appeared between 1851 and 1853. Part of this evolution has been ascribed to Verdi's having adopted some ideas of Richard Wagner, whose first two Ring operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre had just appeared. Some of the Wagnerian elements in Aida (to become even more evident in his last two operas) were his rejection of the "balanced symmetry" of musical phrases and his diminishing the disparity between recitative and aria, making the joins less obvious. Two first-act arias, Radames' "Celeste Aida" and Aida's "Ritorna vincitor" are perfect examples. These, along with Aida's third-act "O patria mia" are the only traditional, Traviata-type arias in Aida. (This is a very Wagnerian touch; indeed, there are only two arias in the entire Ring cycle.)Verdi also introduced Wagnerian-style motifs such as in the first few bars of the prelude (Aida's motif), immediately followed by the "priesthood" motif. (Listen for it again in the last act as the priests enter the hall of judgment.) At the conclusion of "Celeste Aida", Princess Amneris enters, accompanied by her motif. And there are numerous other examples, for example the high priest's motif; the motif of Amneris' jealousy; and the motif of the god Phtha (pronounce it if you can).

The words "Ritorna vinicitor") are sung (Act I, scene ii) by the Egyptian multitude as they send Radames to do battle against the Egyptians. Traditional staging has them raising their right arms aloft in a gesture which later became the Fascist salute. During World War II the Metropolitan Opera, fearing demonstrations among the many Italian-Americans in their audiences, did away with the gesture. (It has since been reinstated.) In her aria the slave Aida, daughter of the Ethiopian king Amonasaro, expresses her anguish at having joined in the call for victory against her own people.

The story of how the Khedive of Egypt commissioned Verdi to write an opera for the new Cairo opera house (which opened in 1869) is well known. Verdi at first refused the commission, but was later persuaded by his friend, Camille du Locle, to reconsider. Du Locle supplied Verdi with a four-page sketch of the plot which had been prepared by a famous French Egyptologist named Mariette. (The actual premier of the work was delayed until December 1871 by the Franco-Prussian war, which stranded costumes and properties in Paris.) Verdi referred musically to the opera's exotic locale by introducing music he considered "oriental" just as Puccini did in Madam Butterfly. Much of this is heard in the second act (the dance of the Moorish slaves in scene I and the ballet in scene ii, the great "triumphal scene"). The trumpet voluntary in this scene is one of the opera's high points. During my high-school days in the 1940's a regular feature at all proms was a promenade to this "grand march."

* Alessandro Scarlatti was the father of the more famous Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). Domenico wrote a considerable amount of vocal music, but is best known for his nearly 600 harpsichord sonatas, most of them written in Madird where he was the music teacher of the infanta.